Murder Mystery: Dying Embers
Photography courtesy of The Arkansas Fire Training Academy, Camden Arkansas
Flames engulfed the small west Texas house where Ernest Ray Willis was staying with a cousin and friends. Willis, who had been sleeping on the couch, escaped the fire but was unable to rescue two women trapped inside. Investigators found what they believed to be an accelerant on the carpet and charged Willis with arson and murder. The following year, 1987, a jury found him guilty and sentenced him to death.
In 1992, Willis was joined on death row by Cameron Todd Willingham, who had been convicted of arson and murder in Corsicana, Texas. The victims were his three daughters, 2-year-old Amber and 1-year-old twins, Karmon and Kameron. At Willingham’s trial, investigators testified that V-shaped burn patterns low on the walls and puddle configurations on the floor indicated the fire had been set with a flammable liquid.
Willingham was executed on Feb. 17, 2004. Less than nine months later, Ernest Ray Willis was set free. The controversy over the different outcomes focused unprecedented attention on the science of fire investigation.
Though arson doesn’t usually go hand-in-hand with murder, the majority of fires are intentionally set, according to Conway Fire Chief Bart Castleberry. The analysis of a fire scene is called origin and cause investigation. “… where the fire started and what started it,” Castleberry said. “One of the first things you look for is a mechanical reason for the fire.”
For instance, some sort of electrical equipment might be responsible, or even a plug-in air freshener. “You eliminate all practical causes,” he said, “And then look at the fire and the patterns. “Sometimes the cause is hard to pinpoint. “The foam rubber in a couch will cause a puddle. The foam rubber will burn like an accelerant. Furniture is notorious for causing what looks like a pour pattern.”
Patterns played a big role in 1990 in what became known as the Lime Street fire when Gerald Wayne Lewis was charged with six counts of murder by arson in Jacksonville, Florida. He said the fire started on the living room couch where his son had been playing with matches, but the classic signs of arson were present. In a rare move by prosecutors, they agreed to an experiment: recreate the fire by using a condemned house that had the same floor plan and virtually identical furnishings as Lewis’. Then they used matches to set the couch on fire. Within five minutes, the fire had reached the “flashover” and “post-flashover” stages; the accumulation of smoke and heat in the living room ignited other combustible materials, and then the fire sought new sources of oxygen, spreading throughout the house toward doors and windows. After extinguishing the fire, investigators saw the same burn trailer, puddling and pour patterns that had indicated multiple points of origin and raised the suspicion of arson. The experiment caused plenty of reasonable doubt, and the district attorney declined to prosecute Lewis.
Little Rock Chief Fire Marshal Joseph Gray said, “We try to stay up on different ways to set fires. People have gotten real ingenious in trying to cover up things.” Continuing education courses at the Arkansas Fire Training Academy in Camden and the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md., keep fire investigators informed about up-to-date methods and procedures.
“The instructor will go out and set the buildings on fire with different accelerants or different materials,” Gray said, “Then we go out and try to determine how it started.”
Investigators send samples gathered at fire scenes to the crime lab in order to learn what chemical compounds were involved. Origin and cause investigation has changed a lot in the last two decades because, as Castleberry said, “Technology has changed. There are a lot more tools available.” “When you put all the technology together,” Gray said, “You can pretty much figure out whether it was an accelerant or not.”
Castleberrry and Gray also pointed out that experience is an invaluable tool in fire investigation, knowing and understanding how a fire acts and reacts. “A lot of it is just plain ol’ grunt work,” Castleberry said. “Getting in there and getting dirty.”
The Lime Street fire was a watershed moment for arson investigation, and much was learned from it. When Ernest Ray Willis’s conviction was overturned on appeal in 2004, an arson specialist hired by Pecos County District Attorney Ori White revealed that the fire had become deadly because of flashover burning, not as the result of an accelerant.
The same science that exonerated Willis, however, did not save Todd Willingham, and in the years since Willingham’s execution, his case has become politicized. In 2006, the Innocence Project asked the Texas Forensic Science Commission to review the case, but during the study, Texas Gov. Rick Perry replaced three members of the commission, including the chairman, Sam Bassett, who expressed frustration with the delays in the process.
Bassett’s successor as commission chairman, John Bradley, questioned whether the commission had jurisdiction to investigate evidence gathered or tested before the commission was formed in 2005. Perry, who has overseen more executions than any other governor in modern history, expressed confidence that Willingham was guilty.
“We will never know if Willingham was innocent or guilty,” Bassett said. “However, one thing is certain: much of the expert testimony used to convict him was not based upon sound scientific principles. It is clear that the evolution of fire science showed this to be true well before the date of Willingham’s execution.”
In an article published Jan. 9, 2012, The Texas Tribune stated, “Finally, in a report released last year, the commission agreed that the arson science used to secure Willingham’s conviction was faulty.”
Following a screening of the documentary film Incendiary: The Willingham Case, former Texas Gov. Mark White sat in on a panel discussion and said, “[The film] pointed out, very clearly, the fragility of our criminal justice system. I don’t know if [Willingham] was guilty or not … but we do not determine guilt by whether they float or not.”